The British Army at war with revolutionary America
Among British Army historians the reputation of Sir John Fortescue stands virtually without equal. His comprehensive fourteen volume history is a work of unparalleled achievement in its field. Fortescue combines thorough source material research with insightful academic observation of the conduct of the campaigns he describes and of the decisions, errors and strategic and tactical options of their principal protagonists. The Leonaur editors have carefully selected passages from Fortescue’s magnum opus to create a series of books, each focusing on a specific war or campaign.
A few years after British regiments had fought to defeat the French in North America, and suppress the power of the native Indian tribes of the Ohio, came the conflict that separated the English colonies of the New World from the Crown forever. The blame for war substantially resided with the British government, which believed, against all the lessons of history (including their own), that the continued loyalty and obedience of peoples could be demanded and expected irrespective of any fundamental injustices to which those people might be subjected. A number of the colonies took issue with that presumption and hostilities—after strenuous attempts on the part of the aggrieved to avoid them—broke out. Independence was declared, and an under resourced British Army, far from home, burdened by political intransigence, indifference and logistic inefficiency, was called upon to rectify matters. The British Army performed better than might have been expected given that it was unsupported and fighting upon its enemy’s ground, though defeat was probably inevitable.
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It remained now to remove three lines of heavy chevaux de frise, which had been sunk by the Americans to obstruct the navigation of the Delaware, and to open the river to the British fleet. For this purpose it was necessary first to capture a fort on Mud Island, near the Pennsylvanian shore, and a redoubt and entrenchment called Red Bank, together with a smaller stronghold at Billingsport, on the opposite shore; these works having been constructed to cover the sunken obstacles with their cannon. Accordingly, on the 29th three battalions were sent across to Billingsport, which being abandoned by the Americans was at once dismantled; but, as the navigation of the river was still blocked, Howe was obliged further to detach three thousand men to escort his supplies overland from the Chesapeake, thus reducing his main body to fewer than nine thousand men.
Of these the greater part were encamped at Germantown, then a long, straggling village of widely detached houses extending for some two miles along the road from Philadelphia northward to Skippack Creek, where Washington was encamped. At about the middle of the village was a four-cross-way, formed by the junction of the Limekiln Road from the north-east and the Old School Lane from the west with the main road; and it was astride of this main road, in rear of the four-cross-way, that the British troops were encamped, with detached posts in front and flanks. Yet another road, called the Old York Road, ran from the north-east, parallel with the Limekiln Road and to southward of it, falling into the main road two miles in rear of the encampment.
Observing the detachments made by Howe, and having himself reinforcements which raised his strength to eight thousand regular troops and four thousand militia, Washington determined to attempt the surprise of the camp at Germantown. To this end he marched on the evening of the 3rd of October, directing five brigades, (these brigades were of course very weak, not exceeding 1000 bayonets at most), under General Sullivan down the main road upon Howe’s centre and left, two brigades of militia along the Old School Lane to make a feint attack on his left flank, three brigades down the Limekiln Road to fall upon his right flank, and two more down the Old York Road to sweep round upon his right rear; these last five brigades being under command of General Greene. Howe had full information of the intended attack, but resolved to await it without entrenching his position, only pushing his advanced posts rather farther forward and enjoining special vigilance on his patrols.
At three o’clock in the morning the American advance was duly reported by the outposts, and the British troops stood to arms. About sunrise, however, there came on a dense fog, which involved the whole engagement in perplexity and confusion. At four o’clock Sullivan’s division opened the attack on the main road, and was met by a vigorous resistance from a battalion of Light Infantry and from the Fortieth Foot, which were in advance. Fighting at every step the two battalions withdrew slowly to a house belonging to a Mr. Chew, a little to northward of the village, when Colonel Musgrave occupied the building with six companies of the Fortieth, while the Light Infantry fell back on the main body.
Musgrave at once opened so sharp a fire that Sullivan’s whole line was for some minutes stopped; and Howe, looking for the most serious attack to fall on his left flank, reinforced his troops in that quarter so as to hold the militia at bay. But it was really on the British right that the danger was greatest. There the picquets had been driven back on their supports, though these had retired very steadily, contesting every yard of ground; and Greene was pushing his advance gradually forward, when the sound of tremendous firing about Chew’s house led him to believe that a general action had begun. In truth, Washington’s attack on the centre had been abruptly checked by the little band of the Fortieth in the house, who held on stoutly to their stronghold in utter contempt of the American artillery. Washington therefore decided to mask the house and to continue his advance; but, the ground being strongly enclosed, this was a matter of some difficulty.
The result was that Sullivan’s division deployed prematurely on both sides of the road, and not, as had been prearranged, on the west side only. Greene, knowing nothing of this and unable to see anything in the fog, also deployed, as his orders bade him, with his right resting on the main road. Wholly unconscious that he was thus overlapping Sullivan’s left, he then opened his attack with vigour, guided only by the flashes of the musketry through the mist; and thus it came about that while Sullivan’s left brigade was hotly engaged with the British in front, it found itself harried by bullets from Greene’s brigade in rear.
Very pardonably the unlucky battalions were smitten with panic, and the disorder quickly spread to the whole of the American right, where it was increased by the action of General Grey, who, always calm and cool-headed, had wheeled up a brigade from the extreme British left upon Sullivan’s right flank. Almost simultaneously General Grant brought up the Fifth and Fifty-Fifth from the British right centre upon Sullivan’s left flank, and completed his discomfiture.
This movement was the more important since the American brigades on the Old York Road had forced back the Guards, Twenty-Fifth, and Twenty-Seventh from their camp to the village, where they held them hard pressed, capturing even several prisoners. By Grant’s advance these brigades of the extreme American left were isolated, in spite of their success; and Grey, withdrawing to the assistance of the Guards the bulk of the force which had been opposed to the militia on Howe’s left flank, speedily restored the balance of the scale in that quarter. Cornwallis too now hurried to the sound of the cannon with two more battalions from Philadelphia, and the Americans were soon in full retreat, though their left wing was recalled too late to save one regiment from being cut off. Thereby not only were the whole of the British prisoners recaptured, but four hundred Americans were taken in their stead.
The action lasted for two hours and a half, and was sharply fought throughout. The loss of Howe’s army was five hundred and seventeen killed and wounded, and fourteen prisoners; that of the Americans was six hundred and seventy-three killed and wounded, and four hundred prisoners.